So when your friendly bartender arrived in New York he put in a brief stint as your friendly waiter. It was in a famous midtown restaurant-saloon, as famous for its high-end clientele as its low-end service. Yes, that latter review is true because the guys they had on staff back then could just as easily have staffed Stillman’s Gym. These guys were tough, they were colorful, at times brusque and downright rude, yet in spite their knock-around styles and their “don’t piss me off” demeanors, celebrities and well-heeled Manhattan-ites visited nightly this gallery of rogues, abiding in full their abuse and all their antics. In fact it was observed by a noted columnist at the time, about this willing clientele, “They’re roughing it in a (Isn’t this quaint?) kind of way.”
Well one of those characters was a bartender named Aldo, the reluctant subject of this episode which, before his tale be told, demands this brief description of Aldo’s appearance. Having once been a pro wrestler Aldo was at minimum a daunting presence to behold. He was six feet a hundred, built like a stove, had hands the size of catcher’s mitts, a head the size of a desk-top and he moved with the gait of Boris Karloff’s Frankenstein. And just one glare from under his concrete slab of a forehead if you were trying to embellish your order with a couple of extras, could make you in that instant drop those extras. “You’re right, Aldo, no need to muddle the cherry, (heh-heh), what the hell was I thinking?” No, you didn’t fuck with Aldo and, as you are about to see, you didn’t ask Aldo to see a wine list.
On the day this story begins Aldo was already semi-boiling because he was serving day three of a week long sentence which means he was told to wait tables instead of tend bar. He’d apparently done something wrong the previous week, (either broken a couple of rules or a couple of heads whose owners had foolishly bugged him), and when you broke a rule as a bartender there, short of being fired, waiting tables was the penalty that was imposed. It was like being sent to the minors to work on your swing. Now forget the fact that the job description of a waiter and a bartender can in some ways be as disparate as night and day, but putting Aldo on the floor was akin to asking a fucking ditch digger to teach macrame. And so when this fish called Aldo was sometimes yanked from his familiar waters, left to flop helplessly on the dining room floor, disaster usually ensued and quite comically.
So on this infamous “day three”, half-way through the shift, when this guy and two beautiful women suddenly sauntered into the dining room and were seated by the maitre d’ in Aldo’s section, the first thing the guy said was, “Sir, may I please see your wine list?” Now we must take a brief side trip here and explain this mythical list for it’s as big a character in this story as Aldo himself.
The List was a simple nine-by-twelve card, laminated for protection, upon which lurked about nine or ten selections. And the staff avoided handling The List, dodging it at every turn, for fear they might have to explain what was on it. When one of the grizzled brotherhood was asked to go and fetch The List, (especially a bartender-brother acting as a waiter), a huddle would often be formed for a conversation like this…
“What did you say he wants?” “He wants to see the fucking wine list.” Get out!” “I’m serious.” “Hey, I don’t know where it is, just tell him what we’re pourin’ by the glass.” “No good, he wants to buy a whole bottle of somethin’.” “Aww, man, that’s bullshit. Tell him you can’t find it and if he still wants to know, take him into the back and show him the rack.” “What a bunch of shit, huh?” “No shit!!”
Get the picture, dear reader? Going to get The List was a lot like seeking out and handling a live grenade. I mean these were the kind of guys who, when asked what kind of sauce is served with the duck, (and this I actually heard), say, “Duck sauce!”
So when the guy from the party of three asked Aldo to see the wine list, Aldo, (who just wants to put down a beer and maybe a burger), backed away from the table as though he’d just been asked to shine this guy’s shoes. But fortunately for all concerned there was a waiter name Cigar Louie nearby (he worked with an unlit cigar in his mouth and was considered the brains of the outfit), and upon hearing and seeing what just went down immediately ran over to Aldo, deftly pulled him aside and said, “Take it easy, Aldo, t-a-y-y-y-k-e it easy. He’s not breakin’ your balls. A lot of guys like to do that now… ask for a fuckin’ wine list… they think it makes ’em look smart in front of a broad. I’ll get the list, you just keep your cool til I get back, okay?” “Okay,” grunted Aldo, so Cigar Louie went and Aldo did.
After Louie’s return and with the dreaded list now in hand, Aldo lumbered back to the table and delivered to the guy grudgingly his mysterious cargo. Then, after perusing the choices for what seemed to Aldo every bit of an Ice Age, (and the air was just as frigid), this guy eventually arrived at a French Cabernet which, handing The List back to Aldo, he pronounced with an exaggerated French accent. “Point to it,” barked Aldo, handing him back The List, not knowing whether a wine had been selected or he’d just been asked to kiss this man on the lips. And so the guy dutifully pointed and Aldo dutifully lumbered back to Louie. Louie then took the list, asked Aldo to point out the choice (himself no sommelier), and just as things were working their way toward some kind of smooth solution, the guy at the table set off an atom bomb.
Up til now not realizing that he’d done anything wrong (for in fact he really hadn’t under any other roof and under any other dining circumstance) he then unwittingly made the mistake of shouting across the room, “Excuse me, Sir, what was the year on that wine again?”
“That’s it!” seethed Aldo, ripping away from Louie’s clutches and storming back to the table where he planted his massive knuckles into the red checkered tablecloth, leaned his massive desk-top a mere two inches from wine guy’s face and roared, “Did you say, ‘what year?’ What the fuck are you buyin’, man, a Buick or a bottle of wine???”
Dear reader, to exaggerate here for impact (or whore for comic effect) I’d like to report that after Mt. Vesuvius blew the devastation left in its wake comprised nothing but two trembling women, an empty suit of clothes on the chair and a naked man whose hair was on fire running up Third Avenue, but in truth that simply wasn’t the case. His hair wasn’t on fire and he wasn’t naked!
Over and out from Bar-land… See ya’ next week-end.